Illinois optimism on the rise

Illinoisans across all areas and demographics find quality of life to be ‘good’

While still a two-thirds majority, the percentage of voters who feel the state is on the wrong track has greatly diminished under Gov. Pritzker. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

While still a two-thirds majority, the percentage of voters who feel the state is on the wrong track has greatly diminished under Gov. Pritzker. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

Illinoisans remain dubious about the current state of our state and the state of the nation, but optimism is undeniably on the rise, according to a new poll conducted by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

The statewide poll was conducted in mid-March by the institute, based at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. It found a majority of registered Illinois voters think the state is on the wrong path and the nation is as well, but in reduced numbers from a similar poll taken a year ago.

There were significant differences between Democrats and Republicans, and between Chicagoans, suburbanites, and downstaters, on issues like the minimum wage. But perhaps what was most striking about the poll was that a plurality of all residents across all areas and demographics found their quality of life to be “good.”

The study’s authors sort of tiptoed into their findings in a news release published Thursday. “At first, hearing that six in 10 Illinois voters think the country is headed in the wrong direction, and that two-thirds think the state is headed in the wrong direction, would seem like bad news,” the release stated. “However, both numbers — particularly regarding the state of Illinois’s direction — are improvements over last spring’s numbers.”

Some 61 percent of those polled said the country was on the wrong track, and 67 percent said the state was on the wrong track. But that was down from 64 percent who thought the nation was on the wrong path a year ago, and down substantially from the 84 percent who said the state was moving in the wrong direction in the last year of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s term in office.

“Thinking back to a year ago, what changed in Illinois to cause more than one in eight voters to change their minds about the direction of the state?” Charlie Leonard, one of the directors of the poll, said. “While there has been good economic news here and there, we have to think that a change in state leadership — the decisive victory of Gov. J.B. Pritzker over the unpopular former governor, Bruce Rauner — has a lot to do with it, even though Gov. Pritzker’s lukewarm approval rating doesn’t look like he’s received much of a ‘honeymoon’ period.”

A separate poll released the day before found that 40 percent of respondents approved of Pritzker’s work in his first two months in office, while 38 percent disapproved. True, that might not indicate much of a “honeymoon” for the new governor, but it was glowing next to the overall opinion on President Trump: 39 percent of respondents approved of his work on the job, while 59 percent disapproved.

President Trump is hearing it from Illinois voters, with 59 percent disapproving of his job while in office. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

President Trump is hearing it from Illinois voters, with 59 percent disapproving of his job while in office. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

There were striking separations politically and regionally, with Democrats, Chicagoans, and suburbanites tending to favor Pritzker and disapprove of Trump, vice versa for Republicans and state residents outside of Chicago and its collar counties.

“Illinois exhibits its own version of the blue-state/red-state divide,” Leonard said. “Urban Chicago and its suburbs decidedly disapprove of President Trump, while in the more Republican, less densely populated ‘red’ part of the state, he is about as popular as in a traditionally Republican state like Indiana or Nebraska.”

By contrast, political and regional differences weren’t as pronounced on the overall state of the state and the nation, and there was surprisingly strong agreement on term limits and legislative maps, but with a wide divergence on the minimum wage.

Here’s the thing, however. Asked about their quality of life, a plurality of people in Chicago, the suburbs, and downstate, both Democrats and Republicans, all rated it “good.” Only political independents differed, and that just slightly, with 36 percent finding their quality of life “good” and 37 percent “average.”

In a rare bit of political agreement, a plurality of 41 percent of both Republicans and Democrats rated their quality of life “good.” Even those on the downside proved remarkably similar. Some 17 percent of Chicagoans and 18 percent of those living outside the Chicago area rated their quality of life either “not so good” or “poor,” opinions shared by 13 percent of Democrats and 10 percent of Republicans.

In short, there are people across the state and in both major political parties who feel they need more help than they’re receiving now.

There was overwhelming support across all areas and the political divide for term limits on state officials and legislative leaders in the General Assembly, as well as legislative maps drawn by an independent commission. The only surprising finding there was that 70 percent of Democrats favored independent maps, but only 63 percent of Republicans, even though with Democratic Gov. Pritzker in office Democrats will take the lead in drawing state district maps after the 2020 U.S. Census. It should also be pointed out that the question did not draw a clear distinction between whether the state or the U.S. Constitution should be amended on the mapping issue.

Illinois residents were split on the minimum wage, however. Overwhelming majorities of Chicagoans, suburbanites, and Democrats all favored an increase in the state minimum wage to $15 an hour, but those outside the Chicago area narrowly opposed it, 49 to 48 percent, and Republicans were even more tilted, 59 to 39 percent against.

That no doubt played a role in Pritzker’s moderate approval rating, as the increase of the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 was the first major piece of legislation passed in the General Assembly under Pritzker and signed into law.

“The minimum-wage bill was passed by the Illinois General Assembly with strong support from Gov. Pritzker,” said John Jackson, the institute’s other poll director. “The opposition was led by the Republicans, some business groups, and legislators from downstate. They argued that the increases would cost jobs and that downstate living expenses were less than those in metropolitan Chicago, and thus there should be a two- tiered minimum wage. Supporters argued that the requirements for a ‘living wage’ downstate were often well above what this bill would provide and thus workers there also needed a wage increase to meet those requirements. In addition, supporters pointed out that there is very mixed evidence over whether minimum-wage increases lead to job losses. These divisions represent the usual polarization in Illinois and the nation at this point in our history.”

The earlier poll also found that persistent Republican attempts to demonize House Speaker Michael Madigan, while ineffective during last year’s election, nonetheless influenced public opinion on the longtime Democratic leader in the General Assembly. Only 20 percent of voters favored Madigan’s job performance, with 71 percent saying they disapprove.

“The speaker has long been a high-profile target for Republican attack ads in a variety of campaigns,” the institute stated in a news release. “In the campaigns for governor and in many state house and senate races in November of 2018, Republican candidates from Gov. Rauner through state representative races and some local races focused on Madigan. His job approval vs. disapproval ratings show those results as well as his many years as perhaps the most highly recognizable Democrat in Illinois.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin got a majority approval rating from 51 percent of voters, a good sign for the state’s senior senator as he prepares for re-election next year.

Both polls were based on a statewide sample of 1,000 registered voters conducted March 11 through 17, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.